Sunday 20 October 2019

British Government in crisis as House of Commons set to vote on future in Europe

British Prime Minister David Cameron
British Prime Minister David Cameron

A potentially divisive House of Commons vote on Britain's future in Europe looks set to go ahead tomorrow

This is despite David Cameron's dramatic decision to publish draft legislation to pave the way for an in/out referendum in 2017.

One Conservative eurosceptic branded the announcement, just hours after Mr Cameron's White House meeting with US President Barack Obama, "undignified" and said it was a sign of "chaos" in 10 Downing Street.

And another said the draft Bill was a "second-best" option and urged the PM to give his backing to a Yes vote tomorrow on an amendment to the Queen's Speech attacking the lack of referendum legislation in the Government's legislative programme for the coming year.

Labour said the Prime Minister's "weakness" had made Europe a "leadership issue" for Mr Cameron, whose latest initiative was about "trying to get his party back in line rather than getting the economy back on track".

Downing Street today said that the amendment - signed by at least 78 MPs, including 67 Tories - was "clearly in line with Conservative Party policy", but said ministers were being told not to vote for it because it conflicts with the Government position agreed with Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Backbenchers and ministerial aides are being given a free vote.

Mr Cameron is unable to put today's Bill forward as Government legislation because of opposition from Lib Dems, who have said they are "nonplussed" by his gambit. Conservatives will instead publish the draft Bill today in the hope that it will be tabled by a backbench MP as a Private Member's Bill following Thursday's ballot.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the move would force Labour and the Lib Dems to "show their hand" on Europe and make clear whether they are willing to match the Tories' commitment to offer the public a referendum following renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU after the 2015 election.

Mr Hague said: "When the dust settles on all the speculation about Europe over the last few days, what is clear is that the Conservative Party is solidly committed and very united behind that commitment to a referendum in the next Parliament, and other parties have either set their face against that or, in some cases, their MPs are now saying they ought to contemplate a referendum.

"They will now have to show their hand."

Tory MP Douglas Carswell said the draft Bill was "what I wanted" and urged fellow-eurosceptics now to put their efforts into ensuring a Private Member's Bill is tabled and passed.

But other Conservatives said they would push ahead with tomorrow's vote, which looks set to divide the coalition.

Basildon and Billericay MP John Baron described the draft Bill as "a small step in the right direction", but added: "No 10 knows that a Private Member's Bill could fail. A far better approach is for the PM to have the courage to support our amendment on Wednesday, which would force Labour and the Liberals to decide. If we won, he would then have the mandate to introduce legislation through the normal channels if he chose to do so."

And Kettering's Philip Hollobone predicted that about 100 Tories would back the amendment.

Asked about the way the draft Bill was announced during Mr Cameron's visit to the US, Mr Hollobone told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "It is undignified and there is some chaos in Number 10 this week.

"When the Queen's Speech took place, the Government could have published the draft Bill at the same time and tried to explain that it couldn't be in the Government' s programme because it was blocked by the Lib Dems, but it was going to be published. That would've been a neater way to do it, but the amendment has forced the Prime Minister's hand. It's a good thing that the draft Bill is now on the table."

A Downing Street spokesman denied that the Government was in chaos over the Europe issue and said Mr Cameron was "very happy" for tomorrow's vote to go ahead, as it would put a spotlight on his referendum pledge.

Asked if Mr Cameron was in charge of his party, the spokesman said: "Yes. The Prime Minister has set out a very clear route for the country to take. He set that out in his speech in January. He made clear that what he wanted to do was go out, renegotiate the position with Europe, make Europe more competitive,more open, more flexible, make sure it's better for us and for Europe itself, and then take that to the British people and seek their consent if he is still Prime Minister in 2017. Nothing that has happened since then has changed that path.That is exactly what is happening."

He added: "The amendment clearly is in line with Conservative Party policy. Hence why backbenchers can vote in favour of it and PPSs (parliamentary private secretaries) can vote in favour of it.

"It would put ministers in a difficult position if they were asked to vote against the Government's own Queen's Speech or to vote against Conservative Party policy. Hence the ability to abstain."

Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: "David Cameron's weakness has turned a European issue into a leadership issue.

"As Labour, we don't support committing now to an in/out referendum in 2017 and so don't support this draft Bill.

"A decision about Britain's membership of the EU has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest today is served by a laser like focus on stability, growth and jobs.

"This latest step has more to do with David Cameron trying to get his party back in line rather than getting the economy back on track."

But Ed Miliband was coming under pressure from MPs including former Europe minister Keith Vaz, to tell Labour to abstain tomorrow, to increase pressure on the coalition.

A senior Lib Dem source said: "The Conservatives are free to bang on about Europe as much as they like within their own party.

"Rather than spend time debating an internal Tory trauma on an issue where the Government has a clear position, the Liberal Democrats will focus on jobs and growth.

"We're a bit nonplussed that the Conservatives keep moving the goalposts."

Pro-European Cabinet minister Ken Clarke, told Sky News it was time for Tories to "move on".

"The important thing is to make sure we get the right result from any referendum which is held to avoid the catastrophe for the country's economy and our political standing in the world if we were to be so very, very reckless as to leave the European Union," said Mr Clarke.

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